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Mental Readiness: Recovering From Mistakes/Errors

By Brandyn Fisher

Tennis is a sport of errors, whether they are unforced or forced. Obviously, the key to greater success in this sport is eliminating the unforced errors in your own game while at the same time trying to force your opponent to make more mistakes. Even the best professional players make mistakes, but what separates the elite from the second tier is often how one is able to rebound or recover from these mistakes and how he or she is able to refocus for the upcoming point or game.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are arguably the best examples of mental toughness, specifically, remaining consistent mentally. It is amazing how little (if any) negative emotion Nadal shows during matches, not even a grimace or frown after a double fault or poorly missed backhand into the net. However, this is something he has practiced again and again and is not just another part of his incredible natural skill. What he is doing is called a routine. After every point he is methodically readying himself for the next one, regardless of how big the previous point was or if it was won or lost. Nadal has some of the most consistent and structured routines of any other player on tour, and he utilizes these routines after every point (i.e., fixing his bandana, ball bounces before serving, etc.) and during changeovers (i.e., placing his bottles in a specific pattern). This skill offers him a comfortable and reliable solution to prepare himself mentally.

So how can you ensure your own mental steadiness throughout those periods when you are playing inconsistently or poorly? The following are a few suggestions that may help steady your temper when things are not going well and refocus your energy towards the next point.

Go to the Towel. Players like Andy Roddick go to the towel almost every point, and there is a reason for this. For Roddick, it is just another part of his point-by-point routine, but it also gives him time to process the previous point and then refocus on controllable factors like where he will serve to next or where what his opponent’s strengths or weaknesses are. Think of going to the towel as a symbolic attempt to “wipe away” the previous bad point and start fresh.

Turn Your Back to the Court. I often have players I work with turn their back to the court when they are not performing well and are starting to feel those frustrations creeping in (*this includes practice situations). Turning their back to the court allows them to take a mini-break from the action and acknowledge the frustrations they are feeling, but when they turn around the previous point is “behind” them and the next point is what they are now focused on. This is something you can employ when you make a mistake and start beating yourself up. The process typically goes as follows: 1) turn your back to the court, 2) allow yourself some time to think about what you did poorly, 3) count to 10 and take a deep breath, 4) turn around and say something positive to yourself, and finally, 5) activate your mind for the upcoming point (i.e., think about the strategy or game plan).

Take Your Time. There are 25 seconds between points, 90 seconds between changeovers, and 120 seconds between sets, but many players do not fully maximize the time they have and often play quickly when they are not performing very well. Some players like to play fast, like Andre Agassi or Roddick, and even these players speed up their pace when they are losing or not playing well. For most players, however, fast play often leads to even more errors and even more mental junk accumulating. With this in mind, videotape one of your matches and see how much time you currently take in between points. You may notice that you speed up before big points, or when you are losing or playing poorly. If this is the case, practice taking more time before points, especially on bigger ones like set point or break point. This might include something as simple as counting in your head or using your routine. The key is to understand at what stages in the match you begin speeding up and then work on targeting those times in the match to slow down.

Implement in Practice Situations. One of the most important tips here is to practice the aforementioned skills during practice matches and then implement during actual competition. Like with all human behavior, we must consistently practice the skills that will help us reduce mental errors and wayward thinking. So, once you figure out what works for you, do it the same way in practice as you would in a match and you will start to see progress in becoming more mentally tough.